How Much Exercise is Too Much?

When we’re talking healthy food, the conversation seems to always go back to moderation, but what about when it comes to exercise? Are extreme exercise regimens like CrossFit and distance running as healthy as they’re touted to be?

Not too long ago I ran across an article on CrossFit shedding light on what it called a “dirty little secret.” The gist of the article is that because of the way that CrossFit trainers push clients to push themselves to the limit and beyond, people who do CrossFit have ended up seriously injured. The article talks about the prevalence of a condition called exertional rhabdomyolysis, where extreme exercise causes long-term and sometimes permanent damage to the muscles and kidneys.

The whole thing made me wonder about other areas where we push our endurance, like distance running. I love running, and I love the satisfaction of having run distances. In fact, I’ve touted the joys of distance running in this space more than once. This CrossFit article has me questioning any kind of extreme endurance training: how far is too far?

Related Reading: 3 Running Programs to Push You to the Next Level

I’d never had the distance running issues that some folks report during marathon training, like losing my toenails or losing control of my bowels or bladder, but as I read this article on CrossFit, I couldn’t help thinking that some of the things they say are similar to the addages that go along with distance running, especially the idea that injury is just part of the package. In fact, there is research suggesting that running long distances can take years off of your life.

The way the author describes CrossFit culture also reminded me of Bikram Yoga in some ways. Bikram and other hot yoga methods use a warm room to help relax muscles. It allows you to stretch further, but it also makes you more prone to injury. I practiced Bikram for years and definitely overdid it more than once.

CrossFit, Distance Running, and Yoga: How much is healthy?

Along with doing a lot of reading about these three endurance exercise routines, I also took an informal poll of about a dozen people who do CrossFit (special thanks to my friend Shannon Hoffman Hinderberger for connecting me with her CrossFit friends!).

There was a lot of discussion in this informal poll, but I think a few folks made some great points about CrossFit that could really extend to distance running, hot yoga, and other exercise routines with a “push it to the limit” culture:

  • Yes, there are CrossFit coaches who push their clients too far. These coaches are irresponsible, and a good coach knows the difference between pushing yourself to the edge and going too far.
  • When you find a culture of over-exertion, you don’t have to buy into it. Listen to your body, and back off when it tells you to back off.
  • Rest when you need to rest. This might sound like the same advice as above, but backing off on weight, reps, distance, etc is not the same as taking a whole day (or few days, or a week) off to let your body bounce back.

I had a yoga teacher once who I think sums up all of the advice above nicely: “If it hurts, don’t do it.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever push yourself. There’s a difference between mild discomfort and pain. Pain is your body telling you to back off, and when you listen to your body, I think it makes a world of difference.

Endurance Training: Finding Balance

When I am going through distance training, there are many times that I will skip a run or even a week of runs. If my knee or ankle feels strange or sore – since I’ve injured both before – I skip my run that day. That is my body telling me that it needs some time to regroup, and I think that once you tune into that, it’s not too hard to tell when you’re working hard versus when you’re hurting yourself.

Just like with food, it comes back to moderation, doesn’t it? Sure, you can indulge in a decadent dessert once in a while. You can push your body’s limits in exercise, too. Just like you might balance a day of junk food with a day of super healthy eating, it’s important to seek balance in your exercise routines. Besides – you lose a lot more ground if you injure yourself and have to stay off of your feet to recover than if you take it easier or even skip a workout when your body is telling you that it needs rest.

I bet that CrossFit, distance running, and hot yoga aren’t the only exercise routines where there’s the potential to push yourself too far. Have you had any extreme exercise experiences? How do you tell the difference between the discomfort of exertion and the pain of overexertion?

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83 comments

Mary B.
Mary B.2 years ago

In my opinion, anything you do during the course of a normal day, no matter where you live, is what your body will adapt to. But it will also be ready to 'hit the ground running' if it needs to, and keep it up for short periods of time.So I don't excersize, I just do different activites during different seasons, and stretch to un-kink, and stroll for pleasure .This idea probably won't work for those who think our species is a blight on the planet and that our body's must be beaten into submission and whipped into frenzied guilt ridden and fear based activity.

Fi T.
Fi T.2 years ago

Work out the art of balance

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper2 years ago

gently does it

Elena T.
Elena Poensgen2 years ago

Thank you :)

Annelies Haussler
Liessi Haussler2 years ago

I'm pretty sure that are very, very few people out there in danger of too much exercise. Anyone? Did you find this article brought you down from ledge in terms of how much cross-fit you were "already" doing? Or did it have the effect it had on me -- whoa, this exercise thing sounds dangerous ... good thing I'm sitting here, safe and sound, in front of my computer.

Franck Rio
Frank R.2 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Lynn C.
Lynn C.2 years ago

ty

Aaron Bouchard
Aaron Bouchard2 years ago

thank you

Paul Carter
Paul Carter2 years ago

I have followed an exercise regime for 30 years. It is mainly stretching and flexibility with some strength building exercises. None of them require any special kit, and can be done almost anywhere there is a bit of space. I enjoy the exercises, I never seem to strain muscles or tendons, and they make me feel better not exhausted. Pushing yourself way past your limit is for masochists with a desire for a short term life, not for people who want a long, fit, healthy life.

Stephen Szibler
Stephen Szibler2 years ago

Well, pushing your body's limits is probably going to involve pain. It might be helpful to distinguish more clearly between joint pain and muscle pain. There are also different stages of development in the conditioning of a athletic body, which also probably feel different. The muscle pain that a novice weight lifter or runner is going to feel is probably somewhat different than an intermediate or advanced (most of us will never get to this stage of any sport) lifter.